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How We Coped with a Critically Injured Staff Member during Summer Camp

September 1st, 2008 · 1 Comment · Crisis Response, Director Development, Facebook, John Murphy

John MurphyIt was Saturday, July 19th, 2008.  I was at a wedding for one of my husband’s friends when I got a call from a staff member.  Not being able to take the call during the wedding I texted her back.

Her reply: “Just wondering if u had heard of anything about john murphy there’s all this stuff on facebook like pray for john n I hope he makes it . . .Makes me sad/worried. Heard anything?  Don’t mean to ruin the wedding but john fell out of a 4th story window and fractured his skull .. . He is in a coma. Hope he will live at this point.”

I run a day camp and as a camp director, this is one of the calls we never want to get.  Of course we fear anything happening to kids or staff in our care but next to that, a staff member gravely injured at any time is high on the list of events we plan for . . . and hope to never encounter.

The Details
Taken from what his family has posted at:

John fell from a 4th story window in the early morning hours on Saturday, July 19th, 2008.  They know that John and his dear friend had gone to bed and John must have gotten hot in the night and tried to open a window that was stuck and he lost his footing. He is in intensive care in very critical condition due to the severe head trauma. His other injuries include a fractured scapula, clavicle, three fractures in his neck, all on the outer bony processes of the vertebrae. No fracture in his neck threatens the spinal cord. He has a swollen knee and slightly swollen left foot, scraped up fingers and toes with minor problems.

The Process of Contacting Staff
As you can imagine, word was out on Facebook first.  Both of John’s sisters posted an update to their friends.  As anything on the internet in a well connected community, word spread like wild fire.  John is an extremely well loved young man. Just the sort of guy you want working at your camp.  This was his second year in our camp and he went to high school with at least 15 other staff members. His long time best friend (who was with him that night) worked at camp as did his college room mate.  This sort of news was going to devastate our team on many levels. We were exactly half way through the summer, mid-way through a session and over 400 kids were coming back on Monday.  From my years of crisis response in the public school setting, I knew getting accurate information out quickly to staff was essential.  It would be better to give them time to process this at home rather than getting hit with it Monday morning.  We also scheduled a mandatory staff meeting for Monday morning.  Regardless of John’s condition, we knew staff would want some time together before campers showed up.  Thanks to facebook and my assistant directors who were admins on our facebook camp group, we were able to message everyone within 30 minutes of that first text message I received.  We activated our crisis team who were checking into our organization’s resources for grief support, additional staff, etc.  We did have staff standing by to make calls to campers on the weekend had we received word that John did not survive the fall.  We also called the young CILT (age 13) who had been working with John most of the summer. Amasingly, she chose to come into work on Monday to be with the campers in their group.

Preparing for the Monday Morning Staff Meeting
John had surgery Sunday night and was out by the time I woke-up to check his web site.  The family was now posting regularly to Caring Bridge is a free and simple service for people going through a critical illness.  By this point many of the staff were able to get the family’s journal updates instantly on their phone.  We were greeted with this message prior to our meeting:

MONDAY, JULY 21, 2008 04:44 AM, PDT
. . .John went in last night around 9 for the bilateral craniotomy procedure which lasted approx. 5 hours. The results of the surgery are not ideal. His condition is very grave. John is comfortable and his body is still strong – but the impact of his fall to his head is severe.

Please pray for John, our family, and friends.
This is a difficult day. We need a miracle.

There have been difficult days at camp and as a school psychologist I have been on many crisis response teams . . . called into schools that have lost teachers and students (sometimes in the same accident).  This Monday morning meeting was going to be different.  I was not the outsider observing the grief – trying to console.  The faces looking at me weren’t teachers and students I did not know.  They were kids (primarily 15-22 yr olds).  My young staff, many of whom I knew as campers.  All so sad – – looking lost and confused . . . Imagining that I was going to bring some relief or some sort of solution as I have done so many other times in their life.

Determined Not To Cry
I was determined not to cry at this meeting.  Certainly there were no tears left in me at this point.  There is always that awkward silence when someone starts to cry and no one knows what to do.  The crier just wants it to stop and the watchers are not sure if what they do will make it worse or better.  Trying to avoid that at all costs, I shed a few more tears in the copyroom with my facility manager, took a deep breath, and entered the small gym where all 70+ staff sat crowded together with their shoes off so they didn’t damage the gymnastics mats.  I took one look at all those sad and shocked faces, and my eyes just flooded, and the tears streamed down.  I have 2 great assistants who were there getting the meeting started.  (Little did they know it was because I was crying in the copy room with my facility manager.)   One of them put his arm on my shoulder and with that gesture I had enough strength to pull myself together . . . . But what in the world was I going to say?

John Murphy Get Well CardFind the Words and Dealing with the Logistics of the Day
At camp training we talk about what sort of business we are in.  At all levels of participation, from camper to director, we are in the ‘life skills business.’  All I could think of, looking at the staff, was that I really had not wanted this to be the life-skill they learned.  At the meeting we got everyone caught-up on all the details about John and the accident.  Handed out tissue and talked about how the day might go.  Given that over 400 kids were showing up for camp, (in thirty minutes) we needed a plan for how to cope.  We had subs for John and his friends who were with him at the hospital.  The kids in John’s group were seven and eight year olds.  With 7-13 year olds at our day camp we decided to let the camp community know generally that John was injured and that we would be making cards for him.  I was silently very concerned that if John did not make it through the day that we would be dealing with a different situation entirely.  Since many of the staff were plugged in with the updates from the web site, I asked them not to pass any additional information to the campers, especially if any worse news about his condition broke during the camp day.  We cleared a room at camp and designated it as a place staff could go if they needed a quiet space.  We stocked it with tissue and some poster paper for staff to write notes to John.  Ultimately I had to stress the need for all kids to be supervised and safe.  Despite our grief – we were still responsible for other people’s children who really were not going to be that affected by this immediate news.  The campers were going to make their “get-well cards” and then want to move on to play.  It was times like this that we would need to rally and put our game-face on when were we out on the field.  Behind the scenes, in the dugout, we drop our charade.

We ended the meeting with a minute of silence for John and let the staff have the last 20 minutes with each other.  Promptly at the camp start time, everyone took their marks with smiles on, doing their goofy dances, and high-fiving kids.  I can’t recall a moment when I was more proud of the tenacity and maturity of our team.

Surviving the Rest of the Day/Week
The rest of the day went remarkably well.  As predicted, the campers did not miss a beat.  They made their cards, signed the poster and moved on completely unaware of the gravity of the situation.   As any good camp administration, we planned for the worst and hoped/prayed for the best.  A draft email was edited and on hold should news come in of John’s passing.  At that point, parents would need to be informed, phone calls would go out to John’s campers specifically.  I hesitated every time someone from the hospital called or texted me.  I thought, “Was this the news I so feared?”

Parents came into the office, unaware of what we were dealing with.  It took all our patience and service orientation to greet them with a smile when they complained at us about their camper losing their towel.  I just wanted to say, “Really?  Is this what you want to complain about to us today? Really?”

John is a fighter,  his family is tight knit (pictured left), his spirit is strong, and his will to live even stronger.  People all over the world were praying him back to life.  Friends and family drove in from across the state and dozens of people flooded the ICU.  As John passed the 72 hour mark – still alive – we all rejoiced.  As his condition stabilized, my focus shifted to the impact of this tragedy on those left to grieve.  While I knew him only 2 years, at least 15 staff members went to school with him, several knowing him since early childhood.  How were they going to cope?  Each experiencing this trauma in a different way.  How was I going to cope?  One thing that helped me was composing my thoughts in short letters to John for his guestbook.  Initially it was a way to document our collective journey as a staff and provide something of a record for John to read when he pulled through this.  In retrospect, it turned out to be a very therapeutic way to express what I was experiencing.  Ultimately, it provided additional opportunities for healing as staff and strangers read them and sent me notes of gratitude.  I have re-posted those letters to John on this blog and with links below.  He is currently in a coma-like persistent vegetative state receiving amazing treatment at an Kentfield Rehabilitation Hospital to help him “wake-up.”  You can get the most up-to-date information at John’s Caring Bridge Site.

What I Learned

  1. It is essential to have a mechanism in place to communicate with your staff when they are not at camp.  Text messages, email, and Facebook were essential. I suggest all the staff put my cell phone number in their phone at training and let them know they can text message me, email me, call me, etc.
  2. Having prior relationships developed with my staff meant that they got in touch with me immediately when news broke and they kept me posted from the hospital.
  3. Young adults and teens are truly amazing.  I already knew this and am always encouraged about the future of this country when I see how my staff can do great things when asked to rise to the occasion.
  4. Having extensive training as a crisis responder helped significantly as did being part of a big organization with grief and counseling resources.   If you are a smaller camp if would be essential to have a resource list in place before each summer.
  5. It is hard to be the one charge when the crisis affects you as well.
  6. Be satisfied and content with the way you spend every day because you don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
  7. Make sure people around you know you love and appreciate them.

Additional Crisis Resources

Additional John Murphy links:
John’s “thanks for letting me work at camp” (video)
John in the 2007 Camp Dance Off (video)
Letters to John #1: July 23, 2008
Letters to John #2: August 2, 2008
Letters to John #3: August 9, 2008
Letters to John #4: August 29, 2008

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  • Camp Director

    Thank You SO much for this article.